When a year ago I was invited to be an expert in a new Facebook group, “Piano Learning—the Essence of Technique and Musicality”, the first question from a member was on technique of playing piano arpeggios.
This question is asked frequently, and the answer to it varies great deal, depending on a particular legato technique used by a pianist. Therefore, the suggestions about action of the thumb in crossings/crossovers, movements of the arm, elbow, fingers can be often opposite to each other.
The technique of crossings and crossovers in piano arpeggios is the final stage in studies of basic legato technique. That is why prior to answering the question on piano arpeggios, we need to discuss quite many issues on piano technique in general.
WHERE TO START WHEN LEARNING PIANO ARPEGGIOS
The first step toward an implementation of piano arpeggio is awareness of proper sitting position, placement and shape of each part of playing apparatus, alignment of all of them.
Next phase is technique of legato itself. Some pianists use overlapping legato, some—acoustic legato (the one without physical connection of the fingers). Sometimes, rotation is used only on alternating notes of tremolo and trill; sometimes – on each note in any shape of legato passage.
My personal preference is acoustic legato with the use of rotation on each note. Rotation benefits pianist greatly. It assists in connecting the notes without stretch of the fingers and without wrist’s twisting; improves the musical continuity of any note on which it is used; assists in transitions over large distances, whether the articulation is legato, non-legato, or staccato.
We should distinguish two types of rotation. One is an instant turn of the forearm/hand unit. The moment finger is reaching down the key, it rolls from its central area of 2-3 mm in width to its side, along with forearm/hand unit. We use this instant turn on the notes, which change the direction in the wavy passages “edge notes”); and also in crossings and crossovers, where two instant turns in opposite directions follow one another (right-left or left-right).
Having several notes legato that head in one direction, the rotational technique is a little different: we feel that the forearm turns as a response to tiny preparational movement of the fingers.
In both types of rotation, though, the action of the fingers is an essential component, since the fingers always start the whole rotational movement. Just in the type, where rotation is instant, we subjectively feel the roll of the finger to its side as a beginning of the motion.
The action of the finger that precedes and triggers the spontaneous response of the forearm is very specific. First of all, it is the action of not just one finger that prepares to press the next key, but of all available fingers which don’t play at the moment (i.e., pressing a key with the 5th finger, we lift all the fingers from the 1st to the 4th; staying on the third finger, we lift either thumb and 2nd, or 4th and 5th fingers, depending on the direction of a passage). The second very important point is that the action of the fingers is not the LIFT of the fingers UP, but the PULL a bit OUT, SIDEWAYS. Only this type of fingers’ movement can cause the forearm rotation, that, in its turn accumulates kinetic energy for getting to the following note and bringing to this next note proper amount of arm weight. The pull of the fingers out should be very small (couple of millimeters), as if they obey some mysterious gentle power. The part that feels pulled is the tips of the fingers, not their middle joints. We can envision an opening of small delicate fan—just the beginning of its opening. This tiny action is sufficient for the instant voluntary response of the forearm.
The next action is a relocation, shift of the forearm that delivers the finger to any necessary location. The finger occurs right above the key, getting straight down to it from insignificant distance. Sometimes, it feels that the finger gets down the key right from the key’s top, or even from the point of double escapement to a key bed. No matter what sensation is, finger should go the key straight down, vertically. The forearm occurs behind the finger, supplying it with necessary amount of arm weight.
At the moment when the next finger is pressing the next key, all non-playing fingers should be momentarily released to occur near of playing finger. They should feel completely free – not squeezed and not separated.
Getting through all the stages of learning legato, we approach the special technique, used only in two situations: in crossings and crossovers in piano arpeggios, and in fast arpeggio passages with frequent changes of the direction. This technique includes quite unusual placement of forearm and unconventional trajectory of the forearm’s movements.
In relation to pianist’s torso and a keyboard placement of the elbow is not different from the regular one. It hangs down freely between the torso and the piano, being leveled with the top of the keys. However, for playing piano arpeggios with crossings and crossovers the elbow has to be not on the side of the pianist’s body, but in front of it. Meanwhile, the forearm/hand unit should be placed to the keyboard angularly, resembling the hand of the clock, pointing at different numbers on the clock’s face. The range of the movement is approximately between 12:30 and 2:30 for the right hand , and between 9:30 and 11:30 for the left hand.
Important detail: forearm also must be tilted towards the fifth finger, in order to avoid forearm’s twist. We also should watch the elbow to be quite far from the torso—closer to the keyboard. Otherwise, the upper arm would feel squeezed and unable to move. While moving elbow farther from the body and closer to the keyboard, we can experience raise of the wrist, but this doesn’t create a problem. On a contrary, higher wrist is very helpful in overcoming wide intervals in legato, especially in fast tempo.
When the movement across the keys starts, the trajectory of the moving hand resembles the top of windshield wiper. As to the elbow, it also doesn’t remain motionless. It moves too, resembling a curvy line drawn by the bottom of the cleaning part of the windshield wiper.
This arm/hand position and the moving path allows to keep the thumb in piano arpeggio crossings above the keyboard. The regular position of the arm/hand ( parallel to keys), if used in arpeggios leaves the thumb outside of the keys, requiring frequent forearm movements ahead to the keyboard and back. The technique of acoustic legato helps to overcome distances in piano arpeggio crossings and to omit frequent inconvenient moves of the arm forward-backward. While any long finger participating in piano arpeggio crossing presses first note of the crossing, the thumb should be pulled a bit out – to touch lightly the side of the second finger ( the area of the second finger’s middle joint–knuckle phalanx). It creates instant forearm rotation. Then the thumb steps to the second note of crossing, as if this next note is the very first one, i.e., the starting note of the new segment. At this moment the thumb turns to opposite direction along with the forearm. With this technique thumb never gets under the palm, that would create unwanted twisting of the wrist and big elbow motion out. The critical point is to estimate and employ perfect timing of the forearm’s roll, while the thumb is gently pulled toward the second finger: we shouldn’t release the long finger from the first note of crossing, but also shouldn’t overhold it.
Knowledge of healthy legato technique is a mighty tool for overcoming multiple physical problems, while benefiting musicality of piano performance. We need to clarify, what exactly should be done; then to use certain tools for the embodiment of the theoretical knowledge of technical ideas; and develop very attentive ear control – to make sure that any moment of implementing process would fit our artistic criterions.